The pen is mightier than the digit

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For hundreds of years we have been recording, collecting, distributing and storing information using pen and paper; this extends to thousands of years if we include making marks on paper/papyrus or clay tablets. It is only in my lifetime that we have been able to use digital technology for these purposes. The advantages of digital over the pen are numerous and obvious, I leave it to my reader to make their own list. However, in our rush towards the benefits of digital we may have ignored and overlooked the continuing benefits of pen and paper.

This was brought home to me when I saw a presentation by Anoto of their digital pen. The pen looks like a normal ball point and writes on normal paper so has the advantages of paper; however, some very clever technology captures all the marks the pen makes and these can be uploaded later.

Let me list a few of the benefits of this hybrid solution:

  • Paper is a physical medium that can be read by most people without any technology. My apologies to anyone with a severe visual impairment when this is not the case. There are various situations where this can be important:
    • Legal documents often require the physical paper and signature.
    • A physical receipt is convenient at the end of a transaction.
    • More interestingly is the example of a care worker who goes into a person's home, a paper record of all the visits can be left so the patient or anyone else who is interested can see the record. Whilst a digital version is stored in the pen for later processing.
  • Paper and pen are inexpensive in comparison to a PDA or laptop.
    • This is important where loss or theft is a major problem, such as drug rehabilitation centres.
    • It also allows the distribution of the technology to larger groups of users such as people collecting for charity.
  • Paper is light and robust and can be used in challenging surroundings:
    • Inspectors of both buildings and lifeboats use them in situations where electronic technology would get in the way of the job.
  • Filling out a paper form is a common experience and therefore it is socially acceptable to do it during an interview. A laptop or PDA can put up a barrier either because the interviewee is not used to the technology or because they cannot see what is being written. The paper can easily be shared with either person filling in parts with very fast verification.
  • The pen has a very low energy requirement so can be used when power is not readily or easily available.
    • Collecting information in the jungle.
    • Recording information in a disaster zone.
    • Just being away from base office for a day or two.
  • Existing forms can continue to be used so requiring no training for the operative. The data collected electronically will be more accurate and available faster.
    • For example patients can be monitored on a regular basis and the information fed back to a central office for analysis and any changes can be recognised and appropriate action taken.
    • A calendar of cleaning in toilets can continue to be used with the information being available to the users who read the calendar, but also to the management on a regular basis.

Although this looks like a low-tech solution the technology behind it is clever. Basically any piece of paper that is to be used has a matrix of tiny dots printed on it (this can be done using a normal 600dpi printer) as well as the form itself. The pattern of dots is unique for each piece of paper printed and each small area on the paper. So the pen can immediately record the time and date, what piece of paper, where on the paper, as well as pressure and direction.

This information can be sent to a computer through a USB connection or Bluetooth and a mobile phone. Once at the computer the form can be recreated to look exactly like the original, and information can be digitised for further processing.

There is an alternative way of using this technology. Devices are available that will recognise what they are pointing at and replay a relevant mp3 file. This has been used for childrens' books; the child points at the book and the device reads out the relevant text or makes a suitable sound to go with the picture. It can also be used for labels on items for people with vision impairment or people who understand another language.

This technology shows that paper can continue to be the medium of choice for many applications. Providing inexpensive, low-tech, friendly, usable and robust solutions.

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